With more and more people taking the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA, the 23andMe test and the AncestryDNA test at Ancestry.com, people get their results back, and then wonder what to do with them. Let’s take a look at why people test and what to do with the results.
Remember, this is just the basics. If you want a detailed analysis, that too is available. This article isn’t focused on everything you could possibly do and how to do it, but on getting the excited newbie through the first day:) OK, maybe the first week!
What you Get
These three tests provide you with two basic genealogy related items, aside from the health information at 23andMe which we are not discussing here.
1. Percentages of ethnicity. These tests are the most reliable way to obtain your ethnic breakdown. Remember, these tests test all of your DNA, inherited from all of your ancestors. By testing the Y-line and mitochondrial DNA, you can determine the ethnicity of those specific lines, but autosomal determines the ethnicity breakdown of all of you, not just those two genealogical lines.
2. Lists of people you are related to. How each company provides this information varies a bit, but the essence is that you receive a list of people you match, and estimates of how closely. Figuring out your common ancestry is up to you.
Why you Test
There are, in general, only 4 reasons, again, aside from the health information at 23andMe, to test autosomal DNA.
- You want your percentages of ethnicity.
- You want to see who you match and you’re willing to do the work to find out how.
- You have a theory that you’d like to test.
- You’re an adoptee or someone who doesn’t know who both of their parents are, and you’re hoping for a close match.
In reverse order, Providence will take care of number 4. You can increase the odds of Providence helping you by fishing in multiple pools. Remember that Providence has a sense of humor.
A good example of a theory that’s easy to test relative to reason number 3 is to see if two people are really half-siblings vs whole siblings or not siblings at all. The results will provide you with the answer to this question easily. This example only requires testing the two people directly involved.
A less straightforward testing theory example is attempting to determine which of 4 brothers born in the 1750s produced your ancestor who was born in the 1780s. This scenario requires lots of hard work to find people whom you match who carry the surnames of the wives of the four brothers. In addition, you may also want to do some of what is called “directed testing” where your find descendants of specific individuals or families and test several people to see if any of them match you, or any of your cousins in that line, using these autosomal tests. This is a much more involved project and can be expensive. However, if it’s your last best hope, or your only hope, somehow the cost doesn’t matter so much. It’s probably less than a trip to another state.
Many people think the test does the hard work. It doesn’t. It does the easy work. The hard work is left up to you….the genealogy research that must go along with these matches. All the DNA test can do is to tell you that you DO match. It can’t tell you how. Your match could come from any of your ancestral lines and it’s up to you and the person you match to figure out how you match and who your common ancestor is. Every single match is a new opportunity for research, work and discovery.
Let’s take a look at the results at Family Tree DNA.
Click on Family Finder, then on Matches. The first mistake people make is that they don’t realize you’re not initially seeing all of your matches, just the “close and immediate” ones.
In the drop down box for “relations,” you’ll see “show all matches.” Choose that option.
If you have entered your surnames under Account Setting, Most Distant Ancestors and then Surnames, or if you have uploaded your Gedcom file, you will see your matching surnames with your matches in bold. In the example above, Barbara is my mother. Harold is my third cousin on my father’s side. Harold has entered his surnames, and the ones we match “float to the top” and are bolded. You can see the beginning of that list; Brown, Crumley, Lowery.
This is where the work for you begins, determining how you and your match connect to these surnames and if they are the same family.
You can see that Family Tree DNA predicted that my mother was either my mother or my child. They use the amount of shared DNA to make that calculation. You share 50% of the DNA of each parent, and your child shares 50% of your DNA, so someone you match at 50% has to be either a child or a parent to you. It’s that simple.
Of course, in each generation, after your parents, the percentage of DNA that you receive from any given ancestor is not exactly 50% of the previous generation. But it’s close, and it’s the only number that we can accurately use for predicting relationships.
The following percentages show how much DNA is shared with different family members.
- 50% mother, father and siblings
- 25% grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, half-siblings, double first cousins
- 12.5% first cousins
- 6.25% first cousins once removed
- 3.125% second cousins, first cousins twice removed
- 0.781% third cousins
You may be able to see these relationships easier on the following graphic.
You can read more about autosomal inheritance on the ISOGG “Autosomal DNA Statistics” page. At the bottom of that page are some other good articles about working with autosomal DNA results.
Family Tree DNA and 23andMe both use calculations that involve the total centimorgans shared and the longest contiguous block. You don’t need to understand these calculations. (Remember, this is just the basics.) What you need to understand is that the relationship predictor can get close, but the further back in time you go, the less accurate it will be. Remember that every generation, DNA is passed at random to the next generation. You can see on my match page that my third cousin Harold is predicted to be a second cousin, but the range is 2nd to 3rd cousin. That means that Harold and I share a little more DNA than most third cousins.
If you need help, you can always click on “page help”.
Ancestor Fishing and the Chromosome Browser
Let’s say I think that I might have found a new surname in my line. It want to see everyone who has the surname Hickerson who is on my match list. I enter that surname in the “ancestral surname” box, and click on “run report.” The results returned will all carry the Hickerson surname, which you can see by scrolling for the highlighted names.
Now I want to see if these three people share common DNA not just with me, but with each other. If we all share a common segment of DNA, then that confirms a common ancestor and attributes that DNA at that address on that chromosome to that specific ancestral family.
In my case, the known ancestral family is Vannoy, so let’s look at the Vannoy cousins as compared to me.
Each of the participants results are color coded. On the page below, you can see that each matching segment of the chromosomes are colored. It turns out that all of us share a fairly large segment on Chromosome 15. So now we can attribute that segment to Elijah Vannoy, our oldest proven ancestor in that line. You can also see some areas where one or two of my cousins match my DNA, but not all of us. Those can also be attributed to Elijah Vannoy’s line since we share no other (known) common ancestors.
This cousin match is simple because the men share the same surname, but if this was 3 women with different surnames, the matching would still work. The challenge of course would be to find the common ancestor. In this case, if all 3 women had Elijah Vannoy in their tree, we could still tell that this segment of Chromosome 15 was attributed to the Vannoy family.
You can also download the results into a spreadsheet so you can do this matching without selecting 5 at a time. Of course on a spreadsheet, there is no pretty and graphic chromosome browser.
Color your Chromosomes
You know, using these simple tools, you could “color in” your own DNA on your chromosomes so you can identify which part of your DNA was contributed by which ancestor. Yes, I know, this is terribly geeky.
Reconstruct a Virtual Ancestor
Conversely, you could also “reconstruct” an ancestor. In fact, I think we’re well on the way with Elijah Vannoy. Heck, I’ve already got most of chromosome 15 completed and parts of 3, 5, 11, 18 and 20!
Find a Guide – Consulting
If you’re trying to do something more complex, or have a specific goal in mind, you probably need some level of guidance if you are the proverbial Newbie.
There are three of us in the genetic genealogy community that provide various autosomal consulting services.
I provide DNA test planning, meaning helping you figure out who to test to achieve your desired results, and also after testing follow-up in the form of a Quick Consult. I also write specialty reports upon request. You can see the various options on my webpage or you can e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss.
Cece Moore is another consultant in this space. She works with a lot of adoptees and beginners. You can reach Cece at email@example.com. You’re probably familiar with Cece through her blog, http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com/.
Tim Janzen, MD, provides consulting as well. His specialty is called phasing which determines which part of your genome came from which parent/ancestor. Now this is easy if you have parents yet alive, but if not, and you have to try to figure this out by piecing together matches from various cousins, it’s not straightforward at all. Tim uses the phased DNA data in conjunction with data from known relatives to create chromosome maps of your genome. These maps are very helpful when you are trying to figure out how you are related to your matches at 23andMe and in the Family Finder database. You can reach Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You might be surprised to see me recommending other people on my blog in what might be considered a competitive arena. Don’t be. We work together. We know who is the best at which aspects of genetic genealogy and we refer people routinely to the best resource for their needs.
The Magic of Connecting
Your level of success with autosomal testing and finding cousin matches is directly proportional to the amount of work you’re willing to invest in contacting your matches and sometimes helping them with their genealogy.
However, the results can be incredibly rewarding. One of my clients is an adoptee. She, of course, was hoping for a half-sibling match, but she’s not that lucky….at least not yet. In the mean time, three of her matches also matched each other, and 2 of them share part of the same chromosomal segment with her. The surname involved is very unique, French Canadian, found initially in only one family in one location. So while we don’t know who her parents are, or her hoped-for siblings, we were able to gift her with one ancestor that is, absolutely, positively, hers. This is a gift she has never had in her entire life. She has never known one biological family member, ever. And she has cousins too, an entire list of them. For her, autosomal DNA has provided the ability to put her family tree together backwards, working our way forward in time from distant ancestors, slowly…..while still hoping for that “lottery winning” sibling match!